Consent and Alcohol

Summary: Similar to the last lesson, this one takes the writing that students did during the week and then asks them to combine and debate their ideas on alcohol and consent.  This lesson in particular may provoke problematic statements from your students, so we advise you to read over their written responses, think about the turns that class discussion might take, and consult you’re your teaching mentor, IDEAL, WRAC or RVAP.  You may have already noticed that we have decided not to directly address alcohol as a risk factor associated with sexual assault. This is because directly addressing risk factors can foster an attitude that blames victims by implying they are responsible for putting themselves in situations where they might be sexually assaulted.  At the end of this lesson you will assign the “Our Guidelines on Campus” short writing response, which includes students filling out a survey which will help everyone see the atmosphere surrounding sex and sexual assault in our university community. Once the students fill out the survey, IDEAL and the Digital Research and Publishing Office will collaborate to create a data visualization from student responses.


Learning Objectives:

  1. Students will discuss why someone who is heavily intoxicated cannot give consent and discuss the importance of open dialogue when it comes to sex and alcohol.
  2. Students will verbalize what they see as the difference between a respectful, but tipsy, hook-up and an alcohol-facilitated assault.  
  3. Students will use the example of Frank to recognize negative rhetoric about sex and alcohol.


Class Materials:

  1. Discussion questions printed or projected
  2. 2-Week Curriculum: Remind students to bring laptops for the next lesson


Student Assignments:

  1. Due: Consent and Alcohol short written assignment (also at the bottom of this post)
  2. Due: “Frank Transcript” reading _Frank_ Transcript


Outline for Class Activity:


  • Introduction (2 min):  Pull up the class guidelines saved from the last Campus Culture discussion and remind students of the goal for today: to better understand the debate surrounding consent and alcohol, including the perspective that Iowa laws and the University of Iowa code of conduct have on the topic. Once they understand the debate, students can decide what they think about those arguments.


  • Small Group Discussion (5-10 min):  Students will first discuss in small groups the questions that they wrote about in their “Alcohol and Consent” assignment.  Divide the students into teams of 3-4 and tell them to discuss their responses to the homework questions. You may want to have each group start with a different question, as time is limited.  Remind students they should not merely tell their group mates what they wrote, but also explain their opinions, ask questions and discuss points on which they disagree with their group mates. They don’t need to end in consensus, but they should discuss and write down the points on which they disagree and why.  


  • Large Group Discussion (15-20 min): Reconvene and discuss the four questions with the whole class.  When the class reaches a conclusion on a given point (or when someone says something many people seem to agree with) record that observation on the board or on the class guidelines Word Doc.  Be aware that this is also a chance to let students debate relevant laws or university codes. Their guidelines do not have to match the laws, but students should engage with those codes in the creation of their own.  You can offer points from the laws or the university code of conduct (in the university code: “persons who are incapacitated due to the influence of drugs, alcohol, or medication” are unable to give consent) for them to consider.  If you want copies of these laws, or an in-depth foundation in the discussion about alcohol and consent, there are several informative articles in the Instructors page of the LibGuide. Below are some ideas to lead students towards during your discussion:
    1. Even if Frank had not used physical force, getting her drunk and having sex with her would legally be sexual assault, even if she did not fight back or resist.  It is predatory to give someone alcohol in order to “loosen them up” or to look for a potential partner who is already drunk.
    2. Frank probably thinks his actions are normal because he has been hearing messages about male sexual entitlement, the link between sex and masculinity, and the false belief that women always need to be persuaded to engage in sexual activity.  He’s been told this kind of behavior is normal. This would also be a good time to mention RVAP’s fall campaign “My cup is not my consent.” What does that phrase mean to students? What messages surrounding sex is that phrase trying to combat?
    3. Because everyone reacts to (and is impaired by) alcohol differently, we probably can’t draw a line like “two drinks = consensual, but three drinks = not consensual.”  The language of the University of Iowa code is “incapacitated by alcohol.” The university code doesn’t specify what that means, but other codes use signals like not being able to stand or walk, slurring words, vomiting to show someone is too drunk to give consent.  Perhaps the best thing—especially with a new partner but even with an existing partner—is to discuss how much they’ve had to drink. If they can have a coherent conversation and say they want to engage in sexual activity, perhaps that’s consent. What does that conversation look like?  If there is any question that the person might be too drunk or blacked out, it’s not worth the risk. What if your own judgment is impaired? Can you be certain that the conversation means what you think it means?
    4. In a consensual, respectful encounter between Frank and this young woman, he wouldn’t have tried to get her drunk.  More importantly, he would have kissed her and asked if she wanted to go up to his room before she got really drunk, not after.  Once in his room, they would have talked about what they wanted, and he would have respected her saying “I don’t want to do this right away.”
    5. Most laws say that gaining consent is the responsibility of the person who initiates the new activity (touching, petting, sex etc.).  There is the problem here in that often there are no witnesses and things turn into a my-word-against-theirs. If neither person clearly remembers the incident it can get particularly tricky.  There have been some questions as to whether there should be a clause in these laws that says that it is possible for someone to be too drunk to know whether their partner was too drunk to consent.  The problem with this is that it could let alcohol be an excuse for bad behavior. For example, we don’t let someone vandalize or steal and then claim they were too drunk to know what they were doing.  A clause like this could increase the double standard where victims are told they shouldn’t have been drinking (as if it was their responsibility to prevent sexual assault), but if someone drunk assaults someone else they are held less responsible for their actions.


  • Conclusion (3 min): Thank students for their thoughtful building of a class set of guidelines.  The next step is for them to look around campus and see what needs changed in order for their college community to reflect their guidelines.  Encourage students to finish the assignment and complete the survey after the Bystander Intervention training, if possible.


Now that we know what guidelines we’d like people to follow, we’re going to look at our campus.  Do people talk about sex in a way that matches our guidelines? Do people act in a way that matches our guidelines?  Remember that even actions can be rhetorical: they can set a model for what normal behavior is. If one person—or several people—treat their sexual partners badly, others might begin to see that as normal.  Even if those witnesses don’t treat their partners badly, they might not do anything to stop the hurtful behavior of other people, because they think it’s normal. So, what sort of campus culture do we have here at the University of Iowa? What is considered normal, acceptable or healthy?  How do we know that? Do we need to change campus culture?



Consent and Alcohol




One of the most common points of debate and confusion about sexual assault comes with the discussion of alcohol.  Research has shown that sexual assailants often use alcohol to make their victims less able to resist sexual advances.  Assailants also use alcohol—in other words, the fact that they themselves had been drinking—to argue that they should not be held responsible for their actions.  In fact, 50% percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol. That number goes up when we look at campus sexual assault. Most state laws and university policies (including Iowa law and University of Iowa policy) try to protect against this kind of sexual assault by saying that someone cannot legally give consent to sexual activity if they are “incapacitated by alcohol” but very few of those laws and policies specify what “incapacitated” means, which can make it hard to prosecute offenders or draw a clear legal line between consensual drunk sex and sexual assault.    


To help us understand the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault on campus, I’ve asked you to read or watch an interview with a young college student called “Frank.”  Though the video is a reenactment, the actors are repeating the recorded dialogue from a real interview. Use your reactions to the interview to write a short (250-300 word) response considering the following questions.  


  1. What is your emotional response to this interview?  Are you surprised? Or maybe not surprised? Angry? Uncomfortable?  Other feelings? Take a minute to reflect on those feelings and why you are having them.  Consider which places in the interview made you react in different ways.
  2. While Frank’s actions in this incident are clearly rape, he doesn’t seem to think he’s done anything wrong.  What messages or expectations about college, sex, gender and alcohol do you think Frank has learned that made him think this behavior was okay?  Consider messages that you’ve heard around campus, high school or on the Internet that might be related to Frank’s behavior.
  3. Frank uses alcohol to make the survivor less able to resist his advances, but we also know that people also drink and have consensual sex.  What is the difference between alcohol-facilitated assault and a tipsy hook-up? Is it the amount of alcohol consumed? Imagine that Frank had invited this young woman to the party because he really liked her.  How would a healthy, consensual encounter be different from the one in the interview?
  4. One other question that often comes up when discussing sexual assault laws is how to handle a situation when both participants are heavily intoxicated.  Whose responsibility is it to make sure the sexual activity is consensual?